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March 01, 2006

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Liz Neville

Brava, Nene!! I wholeheartedly agree with your objections to TVM. I would also repeat that I don't recall the initial motivation of this play as being focused on eradicating violence against women-- it was all about the liberating shock value of the subject of the play. I think the "anti-violence" aspect has been more recently embraced as a way to ward off criticism. In fact, the absurd premise that the essence of woman is her vagina must surely add to the mindset which encourages violence against women-- she can now be objectified and reduced to only that part which coincidentally brings pleasure to the man. Pure idiocy, if you ask me. Thanks for your beautifully reasoned piece.

cynthia

Bravo! Hallelujah! And AMEN!!!!!!

TB

I understand where you’re coming from, but the fact that you only mention the sexual parts of the monologues makes me wonder if you’ve actually seen the whole thing, especially the updated version.

You stressed that one of the most amazing things about being a woman is the ability to give life, and there is a monologue specifically about a mother watching her daughter give birth and what an amazing experience it was. There is also a monologue about women who have been abused and raped; their vaginas were turned into weapons and their own bodies were used against them. This is why the play stresses the fact that women should love their vaginas -- for so long many women felt like it was a curse to be a woman, to have a vagina.

It is so easy for someone in this modern era to say about the monologues that, "the notion that the true dignity and freedom of a woman is primarily found in a wholehearted embrace of a sexuality that prizes her sexual prowess and capabilities is not only wrong, but also degrading." Except, no one is trying to say that a woman's worth is based on her sexuality. Perhaps you’ve forgotten that women used to be shunned, even beaten, for expressing any kind of sexuality -- and they still are maligned for it today.

You can't judge the Vagina Monologues by picking out a few scenes and dissecting them, like deciding whether or not you like a book by reading one chapter. The Vagina Monologues and V-Day are also not just about the play itself, but rather about bringing women together and giving them a safe forum to talk about whatever the hell they want.

It’s no small tragedy if all you can take away from the monologues is "a false sexuality that effectively reduces her [a woman] to a sexual organ." The monologues won't appeal to everyone, but it is not meant to objectify and only make women feel sexy, reducing a woman's dignity.

But I suppose you couldn't see the women through the all the vaginas.

Mary O

Nene, excellent essay, especially the closing sentence: "This reduction objectifies women and thereby perpetuates a soft violence against the dignity of women." Exactly. Feminists decry when men objectify women, but it's fine and dandy when women objectify women. Something's wrong there!

Mary O

"Be it. Be my clitoris." Oh dear- movie flashback!

I'm reminded of the scene in Caddyshcak where Chevy Chase is telling the young caddy: "Be the ball, Danny, be one with the ball."

Jeannine

I am so encouraged by students such as yourself who are so articulate, graciously insightful, accurate, and thoughtfully protective of dignity and hope. Your entire piece is well done, and the closing sentence is fantastic, as it so simply announces the subtle and destructive subversiveness of the play's impact. In the end, the play will undo the benefits it apparently (but doubtfully) intended. But thankfully it's negative reach is limited by the impact of more positive and thoughtful women like yourself!

verbify

It is absolutely clear to me that you have either never seen/read TVM in its entirety, or you have simply (purposefully?) misapprehended the play's place in our culture. American society has always sexually objectified women - Eve Ensler certainly can take no credit for that. Women's bodies have been hidden, revealed, fetishized, raped, beaten, destroyed, and worshipped by men who thought they had such a right. Yet, the women themselves, the objects of all this frenzied action, were allowed no appreciation of their own sexuality, their own bodies. Women certainly weren't supposed to know what felt good. Women's bodies, as sexualized and objectified as they were, did not exist to bring pleasure to women.

This is what Ensler was addressing. She looked at our society, the same one that spawned Britney Spears and Charo and Hustler magazine, and realized that a woman's acceptance of and dominion over her own body had somehow become the greatest taboo. TVM addresses this by reminding women that there is no shame in being a biological female, that the way we - and each part of us - look and smell and taste and function is natural and blissful. No one tells men that they should avoid the pleasure that sex (procreative or not) brings, yet it seems to me that you, and those like you who object to TVM on similar grounds, are saying precisely that to women: Hide it, let him use it, birth a baby with it, but for God's sake, don't talk about it, and don't enjoy it!

Wendy Shalit

Hi Verbify, I appreciate your comment but I have one question: how do you know that women of the past did not enjoy sex nor appreciate their own sexuality? I've heard this assumption before but I'm just wondering in your case, what it's based on. Thanks.

Sara

Wendy, there obviously were women who enjoyed sex before women's lib, but without reliable birth control, and with little control over when and with whom you were doin' it, I'd be less enthused about the process, too. I'm sure England is a great place, but if you're lying back and thinking about it instead of engaging in the sex being had with you, you don't have the sex life you could.

Mystified

Sara and Verbify...ah yes, I can see you haven't read the love letters the WOMEN in my family wrote to their men. They loved them inside and out, and those letters were written long before the years you claim consensual sex was introduced. And you can pretty much find those love letters throughout history--I don't have space here to list them all, but I think you might want to round out your history understanding. You missed some obvious chapters.

Deep passionate mutual love has been expressed throughout history, and one can find many examples of love that are far more appealing and inspiring than the aimless uncommitted sex-saturated expectations presented in our culture. Passionate committed true love has existed throughout history, and you might not want to disregard that obvious fact. Claiming all women prior to the 1950's were abused victims is just plain ignorant.

To me, it's contemporary feminists who degrade feminism who are the ones that so completely disregard a woman's capacity for love, and boil down modernism as a woman's chance to go and have sex with anything that walks whenever she wants. It's like birth control is their new god, and they throw out love as a result.

Sara has been apparently sleeping during the last decade and apparently entirely missed the fact that today young girls have "little control over when and with whom they're doing it". I hardly call the number of 13 year olds that have had their innocence snatched from them an example of the great voluntary sex movement that Sara and Verbify seem to rave about. Their vision breaks down in practice, and sadly our society will be picking up the pieces for a long time to come.

NeNe--Great piece. Thanks~ you've got a great perspective.

The Brits Respond

Contrary to Sara's Idaho-based opinion, Brits didn't live on a continent devoid of enjoying sex. Unless she's been attending some feminists classes that said something about a repressed Victorian England--reflecting a typical, predictable, overly simplified historical understanding, and the comment is thus ripe for satire.

But frankly [the following personal attack has been gently deleted by your humble moderator, who seeks to maintain a modicum of civility in these discussions.]

Wendy Shalit

Sara is referring to the phrase "lie back and think of England," which was the advice allegedly given to married women regarding sex.

The difficulty, though, is that no one really knows whether anyone actually said this.

Lady Alice Hillingdon, wife of the 2nd Baron Hillingdon, allegedly wrote in her journal:

"I am happy now that George calls on my bedchamber less frequently than of old. As it is, I now endure but two calls a week, and when I hear his steps outside my door I lie down on my bed, close my eyes, open my legs and think of England."

Problem is, the journal on which this is based has never been found. There is no way to verify whether this was actually ever written, or whether this was just repeated as a joke like so many of today's "urban legends." (see http://www.snopes.com if you don't know about urban legends.)

It's always tricky to know some things for certain about times past, however we do know that many husbands and wives wrote love letters suggesting their relationship was more than merely an "obligatory" one. We also know that for thousands of years Jewish men were required to please their wives and prohibited from having sexual relations when the woman didn't want to. (Derived from the ketubah, which was like an early prenuptial agreement.)

Were there women of "olden days" who felt oppressed and did not enjoy sex? Probably. Are there 13-year-olds today who feel pressured and do not enjoy sex? Probably yes too.

I think there is a natural human instinct to want to believe either that we live in the best of all possible times, or the worst of all possible times, but reality tends to be more complicated.

Derek

Forget Britain and move to something more viciously overt. What about Africa? Female genital mutilation? Even minimal research will land you various authorities describing the process as a means to control female sexuality and reproductive functions.

Too removed for you? FGM was considered in late 19th century England as a possible means for curing excessive masturbation in women. Which word to emphasize -- "curing" or "excessive" -- I'll leave to you, as both reflect an attitude toward female sexuality that manifested across a spectrum of private and public expectations and conduct.

An attitude that finds fertile soil today, even in the most progressive societies.

Wendy --

What social sanction was enforced, in 1890 -- or any date or place in the Western world that you please before South Dakota, 1975 -- against men who chose to have sex when their wives didn't want to?

-- ACS

verbify

Mystified,

You've completely misconstrued the assertions I was making. The statements you make about love letters and deep mutual love are nice, but completely irrelevant. I was talking about *society* and its perceptions of the female body. I was talking about the world we live in *today* as well as the pre-1950s world to which you obliquely refer. TVM does not mock, degrade, or discount love. "Love", at least in the sense that you're waxing poetic on, is simply not what TVM is about. This does not mean TVM is anti-love; economic textbooks and vacuum cleaner manuals are not about love either, and no one would call economics "anti-love." Historically speaking, it was precisely the deep and mutual love expressed in those letters you mentioned which was considered attendant to women's purity (by which society meant women's complete lack of sexual excitement or enjoyment). I understand that attacking a straw-woman is tempting, but in the end it does not further your point of view. And, indeed, didn't appear related at all to TVM, the topic at hand.

Your mention of modern feminists really bemuses me. Feminism is a broad umbrella, and encompasses nearly innumerable ways in which women deserve equal treatment under the law and under social mores. Yes, TVM is about self-acceptance, the eradication of fear about sex, taking control over one's own body and destiny; and it's about pleasure. But that does not mean feminism is only about these things. The civil rights movement worked for racial equality for African-Americans, yet did virtually nothing for gender equality or racial equality for other ethnicities, such as Asians or Latinos or Native Americans. Does this mean the leaders of the movement hated women, Asians, Latinos? Without specific evidence, that would be a tough one to prove. So, until I see specific evidence that feminists *hate* love, I won't accept your premise that control over one's own body necessitates the destruction of love.

Wendy, my answer to your question is somewhat referenced in the above paragraph. I didn't assert that women did not enjoy sex in the past; I asserted that prevailing societal views held that women were not *supposed* to enjoy sex (or were thought incapable of doing so). As with any historical study, evidence of this is largely based on anecdote and the literature of the time, but if you haven't read Lillian Faderman, her tome "Surpassing the Love of Men" is an excellent place to look for this historical evidence.

Wendy Shalit

I'll venture to guess that everyone here is against female genital mutilation. Perhaps I am naive but I think we all pretty much care about the same things.

The issue on the table, as I see it, is whether the sexual revolution has wiped out sexual ignorance and violence the way many people assume. I'm not convinced of this. Historically speaking, violence and sexual liberation are often quite compatible. To take a recent example, I recently heard that 57% of boys and 46% of teenage kids think it is okay for a guy to force himself on a girl if they dated for more than 6 months.

How can we pull back from this sad situation? Not by telling kids to get over their hang-ups, certainly. In other words, there is no "liberated" or "let's-enjoy-sex" solution to this problem. It seems to me that we need to be able to discuss setting boundaries again.

I think Verbify (by the way I really like that moniker!) is correct that there are many different types of feminism and we need to be careful to make those distinctions.

I also think that we need to distinguish between the sexual revolution and women's liberation because they are not the same thing.

Mary O'Hayes

Or you can go back and re-read the bawdy tales of The Decameron by Bocaccio in 1353. The ladies in those tales very plainly enjoy their sexual exploits. This notion that women were not supposed to enjoy sex is just silly. If that was the prevailing view, then why would Bocaccio have written about it?

verbify

Mary,
Not to be splitting hairs, but...
Cherry-picking one work written in 14th-century Italy, during a time that was acknowledged women were viewed as lustful creatures (and look! here we are, back at that old Madonna/whore dichotomy) is hardly a logical refutation of my argument. I could easily draw forward a dozen female Shakepearean characters who loved gettin' it on, too (although, let it be noted that virtually all were servants or peasants, or, like Juliet, they kicked the bucket shortly thereafter). But 14th-century Florence is simply NOT reflective of 17th-, 18th-, 19th-, and to a great degree, 20th-century America. Anyone with a passing knowledge of the Puritans or the Victorian era has to acknowledge that life was not the Bacchanal that Boccaccio portrayed. (Indeed, with minimal googling I reached Brown University's Decameron Web, which you might find quite illuminating, with regard to the section on sexuality).

Mary O

There are ten thousand and one literary and artistic references from across the ages and across all cultures that celebrate women's sexuality. Birds and bees and men and women have been doing it for a long, long time, and loving it. It's what make the world go round.

I don't know what you are talking about when you say "TVM addresses this by reminding women that there is no shame in being a biological female." I'm mystified that someone feels this shame. I keep my sexuality (among other things) a private not a public matter, out of my sense of propriety and respect, not from shame.

verbify

I think it's beyond wonderful that you have never felt any sense of shame about your sexuality or your gender. Seriously. That's an amazing thing. I wonder who we have to thank for that...

What I challenge, however, is your assumption that, since you've never felt any shame about your sexuality, NO woman ever has. A worldview that myopic can't be safe - you might bump in to furniture. History tells us that women were shunned from places of worship during their menstrual periods, during pregnancy, and after childbirth. But, you know, no shame. I just think it's important to see the distinction between celebration of female sexuality and fetishization of female bodies. One could look at America's Orientalism period and say, "Wow! Look how open and celebratory of eastern culture!" Except...not. Everything has to be taken in context. To simply point to *clears throat* MEN's portrayal of women's naked forms throughout history as proof of acceptance of female sexuality ignores the history that was happening while these paintings hung on the wall (because, traditionally, much of the writings about romantic love have actually been about *same-sex* romantic love). Or, perhaps, we have different definitions of female sexuality - perhaps to you it is more socialized, more about the path between flirting and marriage, hand-holding and making love, while when I say sexuality, I mean it in the basic, natural, biological sense that women have bodies, women have vaginas, women have clitorises, and that these body parts can give us pleasure, just as eating a really good pear or running a mile can give us pleasure.

To address the root question, as reframed by Wendy: has the sexual revolution wiped out violence/sexual ignorance? Honestly, I'm not even certain that there is a connection between TVM and the sexual revolution. I suppose that there is a basic assumption on the part of the speakers (it's important to remember that all these monologues were created from actual interviews) that sex (pre-marital, same-sex, or otherwise) is not as stigmatized as it once was. Otherwise, however, it seems to me that TVM is less about sex and more about women's relationships with their bodies, their understanding of their bodies. As such, I'm inclined to argue that things which remind women of their inner strength, their innate beauty (as sexual creatures and as human beings) is empowering and, as such, may someday give women the strength they need to walk away from an abusive relationship. I'm not going to claim to have statistics on this (which tend to be fairly meaningless anyway), but I would certainly reject an assertion that the "sexual revolution" is the *cause* of violence against women. I think one need only to look to the high incidence of violence in those nations in which women are not empowered (politically, socially, et al.) to see that.

Wendy Shalit

Hi Verbify, it's me, Wendify again.

I think you raise some good points. I certainly don't think that the sexual revolution is solely responsible for violence against women, but it's not clear to me that it's helped much. And in some cases, it seems obvious that making sexuality public and "demystifying" it has made things a whole lot worse.

I think that's the problem a lot of women have with TVM (I'll surely be criticized for not spelling it out, but now I can say I take my lead from Verbify, who is a VM supporter and nonetheless calls it TVM).

In terms of TVM being based on interviews, I read that Eve Ensler said: “Some of the monologues are close to verbatim interviews, some are composite interviews, and with some I just began with the seed of an interview and had a good time.”

Really, I don't see why it matters much. if she wants to have a good time and use her artistic imagination, why not? But it's not precisely a documentary.

OK, more to say but must run--

Good night to all.

Mary O'Hayes

Verbify, of course you are right that there have been all manner of restrictions against women related to sexual matters. And I'm very glad to be living at this point in time and in the Western world, because the freedoms and opportunites we women now have are the greatest at any point in history (I also appreciate modern denistry). But I think that your framing of history views women as nothing but victims of patriarchy, and I think that's simplistic and misleading.

The sexual drive is a very powerful force, it is why the human species continues. It doesn't surprise me that societies have always tried to control it. The human sexual response results in procreation, in bringing new life into the world. It doesn't get any more primal than that. It's not the same thing as running a mile or eating a pear.

I understand wanting more control over our bodies. I don't understand diminishing the unique power of human sexuality to a biological function like any other. I think that flies in the face of biology and human drives.

Spinal Tap

TVM has "Jumped the Shark". It's packaged like some extreme breakfast cereal advertised between Saturday morning network cartoons. Really sad.

Historical anecdotes can be evidenced or spun to fit any thesis, so over-arching conclusions should be drawn infrequently and cautiously, if ever. But to think that now, only we, the masters of contemporary thought, have discovered the true meaning and/or hidden intentions of the writers and painters past, is the hight of hubris.

I would hate to think that in 300 years some over-salted academic with publish-or-perish tenure will conclude that the way I lived was indeed accuratley reflected in the collected works of Harold Robbins or Erica Jong.

Nene

Thanks to all who've posted! To all who have offered criticisms of my article:

I am wholly aware that the VM have other scenes that do not specifically address the vagina or "being one with your vagina". However, and I thought I made this clear in my article, a work that purports to give women dignity or affirm women by having, as one of their methods, lines about a woman being her vagina or a woman being defined primarily about her sexuality is wrong. It is wrong b/c it puts women under a different type of subservience- one that would classify us as primarily sexual objects.

I talked a great deal about sexuality in my article. I think that women should enjoy sex (within the proper context of marriage of course) and should talk about these issues. However, I am unabashedly opposed to the type of sexuality that the VM and most of Betty Friedan-ish feminist movement. That is, a sexuality that focuses solely on the physical aspect of sex and the erotic pleasure it brings rather than situating sexuality in the wider framework of what it means to be a woman. I hope this clears some things up.

Mary O'Hayes

Link to a recent article in the Washington Post about the anti-VM activities at college campuses:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/03/07/AR2006030701842.html

Ensler is mystified. "If you had an understanding of the play, the vagina becomes the least significant thing," Ensler says.

Hmmm. Something which is "the least significant thing" is in the title?

Jenna

Reading some of your other entries for another comment, but...

Just want to say here that the play isn't about making women defined themselves as sexual beings. It's about telling them it's okay to do so, that they should not be ashamed of their sexuality, including their sexual organs. Forgive me if I'm making the wrong assumption here, but it sounds like you haven't actually attended the play.

I think i got this impression because you have actually misrepresented the quote that has introduced this posting. "[She] told me my clitoris was not something I could lose. It was me, the essence of me. It was both the doorbell to my house and the house itself. I didn't have to find it. I had to be it. Be it. Be my clitoris." In the play, the speaker spoke this line with utter contempt. This monologue detailed a woman who had been to a workshop on orgasms and had hated the very message of "Be your vagina!" that you, Modestly Yours, oppose. The monologue was saying that women are not just vaginas, but rather that their vaginas are a part of them, a part that it cannot hurt to be comfortable with."

Yes, one of the monologues was a bit explicit, but its speaker was rejecting the notion that her body was for male pleasure, and instead talking about how much she loved to bring other women pleasure. The more monologes that had more of a "Yay sex!" feel were spaced between more somber pieces so that the whole show didn't become one big depression-fest. Of the other monologues, one was originally performed by an all-Trans cast that questioned rigid gender roles that leads to gendered violence; one was a woman declaring both her love for her body and her outrage at the objectifcation that the big butt she loved so much; another was the account of rape as a weapon of war.

"The Vagina Monologues" did not leave me feeling that "as a woman, I am my vagina and should seek to affirm myself by looking for ways to stimulate my sexual organs." It highlighted the diversity of female sexuality and the empowerment that someone (not all) find in exploring their sexuality. "The Vagina Monologues" seek to make the idea of female sexuality more acceptable, less "dirty," as a means of breaking silences and trying to create a world without violence.

I strongly encourage you to attend the play if you haven't (and if you have--oops, my bad), or at least look at some videos on youtube.

*"My Vagina Was My Villiage" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sQPVuGtRbrI MASSIVE TRIGGER WARNING
THIS is the heart of "The Vagina Monologues." Not, "Be my cilitoris."

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